Suicide Prevention and Leadership

In March of 2013 I received a call. The individual was calling on behalf of the Union Gospel Mission in St. Paul to inform me that my dad committed suicide.

I recall not knowing how to respond or feel for that matter. My parents divorced when I was nine (due to his alcoholism) and I barely spoke with him over the years. The person that called me recounted my dad’s struggle with depression and he mentioned that there had been a number of suicide attempts over the last few years. As much as that was hard to hear, it wasn’t the part that hurt the most. Hearing how much this counselor cared about him and how broken he was really stuck with me.

It’s hard to describe how it feels when someone commits suicide. I felt so many things all at the same time. I was sad, hurt, angry, confused and felt abandoned, as to be expected. I also felt guilty. Did I have a right to be upset when we didn’t have a strong relationship? Should I have tried harder to make our relationship work? Could I have helped him?

What I do know is that this is hard to talk about. I also know that suicide is forever, it’s permanent. I can ask myself “what if” until I’m blue in the face, but the reality is that my dad will never meet my kids and I’ll never have a chance to rebuild our broken relationship. That hurts.

I wish I could say that this is the only suicide or suicide attempt that hits close to home for me, but it’s not. Mental health issues are very prevalent, and we need to figure out how to support each other rather than just using it as a label that we give people.

Addressing Mental Health as a Leader

September is suicide prevention month and I like to talk about the role that mental health plays in leadership. As a leader, you must take the good with the bad and mental health issues come with the territory. Not only do leaders need to think about the mental health of the individuals that they lead, but it’s important to think about your individual well-being. It’s difficult to be the best version of yourself when you are struggling with depression, anxiety or other mental health issues.

If you believe that someone is struggling, remember to:

  • Be compassionate – We have all struggled at times and you don’t always know how much people are suffering in silence. This goes without saying, but at the end of every business transaction is a person. Being supportive of your team will help you get the most out of your people.
  • Listen – If you are looking for a single thing that you can do to be a better leader, this is it. Not only can effectively listening help in cases where mental health issues are present, but it can help in all other aspects of leading others.
    • Make eye contact – The simplest way to show that they have your attention
    • Have a seat – It makes people feel more comfortable and it sends the message that you are not trying to rush them
    • Minimize distractions (i.e. put your phone and other devices away)
  • Encourage action – Taking the effective listening a step further, help the individual work toward a solution.
    • Ask questions – What can you do to start feeling better? Who are you going to reach out to for support? How can I help you?
    • Provide resources such as:
      • Suicide prevention lifeline 1-800-273-8255
      • Employee Assistance Program (EAP) resources from your organization
  • Check-in – Holding the individual accountable to the resources that you shared is important, too. Sometimes people get caught up in the daily routine and prioritize the needs of others before their own.

Beyond the obvious that helping others is the right thing to do, there are business benefits to it as well. Employees that are suffering from mental health issues have a higher risk of absenteeism, lower productivity, and are prone to making mistakes.

If this article hits close to home and you want to discuss a more specific approach on how to move forward – or if you just need to talk, please contact me –


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